This is a different Raptors team heading into playoffs
It has only been a year since the Raptors were in this position.
For the most part the personnel remains the same but there is so much different about this playoff run than there was a year ago.
When the ball is tipped off Saturday just after 12:30 the Raptors on the court will look very familiar but so much about them and about the playoffs this time around is different.
To start with the opponent is different. As DeMar DeRozan pointed out, the Brooklyn Nets, who provided the opposition a year ago, had more playoff experience on one player’s bio than the entire Raptors roster combined.
The Wizards — thanks to a guy the Raptors faithful will be only too familiar with in Paul Pierce — boast more than double the Raptors playoff experience but the difference for the Raptors is immeasurable with four of the five starters a year ago playoff first timers.
But the major differences are more internal than external.
This time a year ago the Raptors were giddy with the excitement of just making the playoffs. They were the underdogs and relishing the role.
This time around they are the favourites, however incrementally over a Wizards team they faced and beat three times this season.
And with that knowledge and having taken the more experienced Nets to the final seconds of a Game 7 a year ago, the expectations are higher.
No one from GM and president Masai Ujiri on down wanted to publicly state that a first-round win is the bar for success this year but that is the Raptors reality.
How could anything less be considered a success?
Regardless of the return of 10 of the 15-man roster from a year ago, including all five starters, the Raptors are a dramatically different team.
This time last year they were a defensive force to be reckoned with. They were a hard team to play against and to a degree that remains true.
What has changed is the focus. This is a team that grades out much higher offensively than it does defensively.
They were the No. 1 team in the East this past season (third overall) in offensive rating scoring 108.1 points per 100 possessions. Defensively they were No. 23 overall (4th worst in the East) in points allowed per 100 possessions giving up 104.8.
That’s just about the polar opposite of the team they were a year ago.
Casey though believes there has been significant progress over the final 2½ weeks in getting to a better balance.
“I feel a lot better about our defence than I did two weeks ago,” Casey said.
“I think our defence has taken a huge step. It’s almost like the light switch came on, after working on it to nauseam and talking about it ad nauseum as far as defence is concerned. There are still areas we have to clean up but we’ve taken steps in the last two-and-a-half weeks defensively of tightening things up and doing a little better than we were. For a while it was like a layup drill with no one in the gym but the other team, but now it’s much different.”
And while that has been going on the offence continued to put up its numbers.
Personnel-wise the Raptors have a guy coming off the bench in Lou Williams that they just didn’t have anything remotely close to a year ago so that’s a huge plus.
James Johnson is also new to the fold although his play of late hasn’t been what it was earlier in the year. He was the response to last year’s inability to contain a bigger wing like Joe Johnson in the Brooklyn series.
“We saw what a couple players did to us last year,” Ujiri said when asked about Johnson’s potential impact on the upcoming series.
“When you look at James, he’s a guy that can hopefully stay and guard some of those bigger wings … He helps us. I think James is determined. I think his season has been solid. Sometimes up and down, but I think he’s done great. He’s been a good fit for us. That’s why we brought him in, to guard some bigger players on the wing.”
But perhaps the biggest change of all is that the playoffs are no longer a mystery to this club.
That seven-game series loss to Brooklyn, as tough as it was to stomach in the way it ended, has done for the Raptors what no amount of teaching or talking could ever hope to do. To a man they no longer imagine what the intensity of playoff basketball is like, they have lived through it.
“I feel a lot more comfortable,” DeRozan said after getting his first taste of the second season.
“This time last year, I didn’t know what to expect. Everything was new to me and I was learning everything on the go. This time, I understand playoff basketball.”
DeRozan then summed up the difference in a concise and easy-to-understand manner.
“Every single step on that court means something,” he said.
“You have to leave everything you’ve got on the court.”
Taking plays off in the playoffs costs you not just points, but wins and those are far too precious to just give away.
A year ago we weren’t really sure what the Raptors were capable of. They probably had better momentum heading in than they do this year but everything else was more uncertain.
This year there is a quiet confidence backed by the knowledge that they know what is in store. The memory of how it ended should give the Raptors all the motivation they need. Kyle Lowry believes it will.
“It just motivated me to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” he said of a Paul Pierce block of his shot that sealed a Game 7 win for Brooklyn.
“And if it ever happens again I’ll make the shot and do something to make sure I finish the shot and we’re not on the floor mad, I’m on the floor happy and excited.”
DEROZAN NOW PLAYING AT IMPRESSIVE LEVEL
The memory of DeMar DeRozan struggling to explain how hard the night after Game 1 was for him a year ago remains fresh.
DeRozan — playing in his first NBA playoff game struggled mightily in the opening-series loss on home court contributing 14 points on 3-of-13 shots — admitted he fell victim to the excitement of the moment.
He sequestered himself in his room alone between games just going over what went wrong. And he was infinitely better the rest of the series.
The Wizards can’t expect a similar Game 1 gift from DeRozan his second time around.
Not only is he playing some of the best basketball of his career right now, there’s nothing new that can shake him.
“That man is playing at a high level,” backcourt mate Kyle Lowry said.
“An unbelievably high level. I think his game is just taking the next step. (Wednesday) night (against the Hornets), honestly, if y’all watched the game, he didn’t even try and still had 16, six and four. No disrespect to who we were playing, he didn’t try. He was just out there and he didn’t shoot any free throws. He had 16, six and four. It’s pretty impressive.”
DeRozan has been in this kind of groove for about the past six weeks and is showing no signs of letting up.
For head coach Dwane Casey it has been DeRozan’s passing abilities over that stretch that has made him so effective.
“He’s reading the situation, reading what they’re trying to take away that’s been huge and it’s been a luxury because now he’s getting Tyler (Hansbrough) buckets, he’s getting (Jonas Valanciunas) buckets and making them pay for cheating off of them and he’s reading that situation very well.
“He’s made teams pay for not really guarding Tyler or Jonas.”
The Raptors have cut down the disadvantage in this department considerably but the Wizards, particularly with Paul Pierce have a decided edge on the Raptors. Of note, the Raps starting backcourt has more playoff experience than Washington’s — but the Wizards front court is well ahead of the Raptors starters.
A. Johnson 18
J. Johnson 7
R. Butler 41